How do we engage with art?
A couple weeks ago, I did two seemingly-unrelated things over the course of four days. I went to art museum and I caught an advanced screening of Terrence Malick’s latest film, Knight of Cups (2016).
The movie has been described as an “experimental film”, but by Malick’s standards, it’s not experimental so much as…par for the course, as his last two movies were just as unorthodox. His 2011 film The Tree of Life found a relatively large audience (considering the alienating narrative style, or lack thereof), and even garnered Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, but many were turned off by the movie’s pace, aloofness, and inscrutability.
Ditto for Malick’s follow up To the Wonder (2012). But one thing nearly everyone agrees on regarding those two movies and Knight of Cups: they’re beautiful to look at.
As I was walking out of the museum, I already knew I would be seeing Knight of Cups in a few days, and – as someone who loved Tree of Life, and thus knew what I’d be getting with Knight of Cups – I was suddenly struck by a similarity between museum-going and a certain breed of filmmaker. When I walk into a museum, I know that I’m going to spend the next few hours looking at paintings and sculptures. When it comes down to it, I’m really just looking at pictures and stuff, but unlike the thousands upon thousands of images and items that pass before my eyes on a daily basis, I actually attempt to look at these pictures. And I don’t just look at them – I look at them. I study them. With every piece, I always try to keep in mind that a single artist spent months (or even years) making this one modicum of art. On one hand, I try to take note of the intentionality: the colors, the position of the people or objects, the shadows, the brushstrokes – all carefully chosen. On the other hand, I try to take a step back and simply appreciate the beauty.
I feel like most people – myself included – typically watch movies with the “just looking at pictures and stuff” approach. We sit down in the theater or turn on the TV and say, “Entertain me. Now.” And for some movies and some filmmakers, this isn’t a fair approach.
Many people rejected Tree of Life because they – understandably – found it nonsensical, aimless, pointless, and self-indulgent. [Note: Not everyone rejected it, as Roger Ebert added it to his final (ever-changing) Top 10 Best Movies of All-Time list in 2012. Though, I would’ve preferred him to add the other movie he was considering, Synecdoche New York (2008).] The ire makes sense; people are used to seeing certain things in movies – a three-act structure, character arcs, dialogue, resolution – and they instead saw something else entirely in Tree of Life (like dinosaurs!). However, there was also ire when Impressionists painters first came on the scene in the early 1860s. People in mid-century Paris were used to historical and religious portraits carefully painted to look realistic and hide the artist’s hand, and they instead got something else entirely – visible brushstrokes, landscapes, emphasis on lighting and movement – in the works of Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Bazille. People initially rejected Impressionists because their work was different and more challenging, and yet, years later, most people agree that, in this case, more challenging ultimately means more rewarding.
People nowadays are more willing to accept something different or something challenging or something that demands careful inspection provided that that something is hanging on a museum wall. They’re less willing to accept those things if they’re delivered to them in film form*. We’re less willing to bring the same contemplative mindset we bring to museums to the movie theater, much to detriment of our enjoyment and understanding of (certain) movies.
* An interesting exception: the short films that play continuously on repeat in secluded sections of many modern museums. These seem to have more leeway to be unconventional and incoherent. Ironically, Knight of Cups in many ways feels like a 118-minute version of a film that might play on repeat in a museum. Another director of challenging films, Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years A Slave), even got his start directing and starring in shorts intended for museums.
I don’t mean to equate Terrence Malick with Monet, Cézanne, and Degas in terms of cultural importance and influence (though, if such a thing as “Modern Impressionist Film” exists, Malick’s recent work would certainly qualify). I’m just pointing out that art delivered to us in a way that’s different from what we’re used to isn’t inherently bad; it just requires us to approach it with a different mindset. I could easily look at a photograph (or a Realist painting) of water lilies to get an accurate depiction of reality, but Monet’s Water Lilies offers me something else entirely. His paintings are still capturing reality, but reality viewed through a different lens – and no less true. The same can be said of Malick’s work.
This idea that different types of art require us to put in different levels of effort as a consumer isn’t exactly revolutionary. In fact, on an intuitive level, it may seem obvious. Anyone who’s had any amount of formal schooling was probably required to read certain books, specifically chosen to intellectually stimulate us and get us to think critically. If you read your assigned reading and happened to read for pleasure outside of school – whether it be Harry Potter, Tom Clancy, Twilight, etc. – you probably noticed a discrepancy in how much effort was required on your part to get through these books. Reading Shakespeare and William Faulkner requires a certain amount of focus, while reading other writers’ work requires less. Hell, the concept of a “reading level” was developed several decades ago in the United States, intending to both quantify the difficulty of reading certain books and by association quantify the literacy of individuals [Author’s Note: This article that you’re currently reading is apparently around an 11th-grade reading level]. To my knowledge, no such quantification currently exists for film literacy (but hey, there’s an idea).
Outside of a classroom, people may be more averse to reading Faulkner (relative to Twilight), but those who are willing to wrestle with the material beyond the surface-level story will likely reap rich rewards (likely less so with Twilight).
Movies are no different. Terrence Malick makes movies to be wrestled with. Charlie Kaufman makes movies to be wrestled with. Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, David Lynch, Harmony Korine. Not unlike McQueen, Harmony Korine is another filmmaker whose early work was strictly for the art house crowd but recently found a mainstream audience with Spring Breakers (2013) – helped in no small part by the presence of James Franco and three (former?) tween stars. And not unlike Tree of Life, Korine’s film was extremely polarizing, with some people calling it the best movie of the year, some calling it the worst movie of the year, and seemingly little in between.
Without context – and with the wrong expectations/mindset – Spring Breakers may seem like heavy-handed, repetitive nonsense. That was certainly my assessment after my first viewing. But, as is the case with most things, context matters; not to equate Harmony Korine with Picasso, but Guernica probably seems like nonsense without context. Yet, like a cipher that decodes a puzzle, by knowing the context of Guernica – that it’s a cubist depiction of a military bombing of a defenseless civilian city – it’s suddenly clear how the painting is seen as, not nonsense, but one of the most famous anti-war paintings ever. Having watched two other Korine films between viewings of Spring Breakers – namely, the disturbingly-titled Kids (1995) and the disturbingly-accurately-titled Trash Humpers (2009) – it’s suddenly clear what context informs (or what cipher decodes) Korine’s work: nihilism. Viewed through this lens, Spring Breakers becomes a neon-soaked, acid-fueled music video obsessed with excess and violence while also being a scathing indictment of the debauched culture that glorifies both.
Context matters. Intention matters. Bringing the right mindset to consume art matters just as much.
On its surface level, Malick’s Knight of Cups may appear to be nothing more than a meandering film about (literally) meandering characters. And, in all honesty, part of me thinks Terrence Malick fell asleep after watching Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) and La Dolce Vita (1960), had a dream about both, then transcribed his dream directly and made a movie recreating it. And yet, there’s no denying there’s more to be found if you’re willing to dig a little deeper: characters lamenting the decisions they’ve made in their lives, feeling they’ve been lied to about what life would give them, dissatisfied with their endless search for satisfaction. So many of these movies that are written off as “pretentious” contain treasures to be found if you’re just willing to look hard enough, if you’re willing to bring the right mindset to them.
Or maybe they’re just pictures and stuff.